by Deborah Sutton
Blue John – scarce, unique, mysterious, beautiful, beloved of the Romans, prized by the Victorians, this purple-striped stone is mined around the Peak District village of Castleton, Derbyshire.
It is the semiprecious Blue John that has given Castleton the title 'Gem of the Peaks'.
Blue John Mines
First discovered around 1750 in Treak Cliff, just outside Castleton, Blue John very quickly became popular for use as a decorative ornament.
Within ten years there were sixteen mines working the area to supply thirty-odd local firms who fashioned it into fireplace and other ornaments for the stately homes of England.
Goblets, urns, bowls, obelisks, clocks, paperweights, chalices and pyramids were all created from the distinctive Blue John. No two pieces look totally identical thanks to the colour variations in the stone. It was also used to create decorative stained-glass window panels, an example of which can be seen in Buxton Museum & Art Gallery.
The earliest dated example of decorative Blue John from Castleton is from 1762 in Kedleston Hall, near Derby, where there are Blue John panels mounted in a marble fireplace surround designed by Robert Adam.
The Blue John love affair lasted until the end of the Victorian era, but by that time whole Peak District industries were dependent on it and so another use needed to be found. It continued to be mined but instead of being used for decorative ornaments it was used as a flux in the steel industry.
Today there is very little Blue John waiting to be harvested, and although it is still mined during the winter months in Castleton, only small pieces suitable for jewellery are found.
Fourteen different banding patterns of Blue John have been identified which come from different veins in the mines. Realistically, although the individual Blue John veins have been categorised and named, the nature of the stone means that there are many more than fourteen different Blue John varieties in existence, and to the untrained eye they can all look similar.
Blue John – What's in a Name?
Despite its name, Blue John isn't blue in the way that sapphire or turquoise is blue.
At best it's purple, but very often the predominant colour is either white or yellow with narrow purple veins or bands, or even no purple at all.
Smaller jewellery pieces tend to appear more blue than larger items and this is probably due to careful selection of the area of stone that is used.
There is some debate over how it came to be called Blue John, with some claiming that the name originated in France, and others that it came from Matthew Boulton, an 18th century engineer and manufacturer/craftsman who pioneered ormolu ornaments and used the stone, which he called blew john, as bases for the ornaments.
Which version you get depends on your source of information.
The most popular, and most recounted version, is that Blue John is taken from the French Bleu-Jaune (which means Blue-yellow). During the 1770s Blue John was exported to France to have ormolu decorations added and it is believed that it was during this time that the name stuck.
However, the ormolu decorative technique used in France was also used in England by Matthew Boulton.
His name for Blue John was blew john and some say this is where the name comes from. Who coined the name first? We shall probably never know, but it seems reasonable to speculate that Boulton's description of blew john was more likely a creative way of spelling (as was common during that time) a name already in existence rather than being his own original name for the stone.
Certainly the two names occurred at around the same time so some relationship between them seems reasonable.
Blue John Myths and Legends
Everyone loves a mystery, and in England we particularly like our legends and myths. Castleton is no exception and draws heavily on Blue John's mist-shrouded past, sometimes deliberately thickening the fog and sometimes just stirring it up a bit.
Whether or not you choose to believe the stories is a matter of personal choice, but as with many stories that have their origins in history, fact and fiction can weave together.
Derbyshire Blue John is unique to Derbyshire, but being fluorspar, or fluorite, it occurs in many other places all over the world and often has colour bands which make it similar to Blue John.
Castleton has established a reputation for being the only place where Blue John occurs and it is possible that Chinese purple-banded fluorite is occasionally sold as having originated in Castleton.
Legend also has it that the Romans mined Blue John in Castleton, and is a story often told by tour guides and local enthusiasts.
Is it true? Again it depends on your source of information. Certainly a blue/yellow flourspar has been excavated from Roman burial sites but this doesn't necessarily make it Castleton Blue John. There is also some debate over whether or not Castleton Blue John urns or vases were excavated from Pompeii, which is another popular Castleton story.
Given the occurrence of a fluorite similar to Blue John in many places other than Castleton, maybe both tales should be taken with a pinch of salt, whilst still allowing Castleton its claim to fame and its historical importance as a source of Blue John.
Like cheddar cheese which is made in many places other than Cheddar, the banded fluorspar that is mined in Castleton is perhaps the only one that has a rightful claim to the name Blue John.
Wherever it comes from, Blue John itself is a unique and lovely stone, and nothing can detract from that.
Places to See Blue John Items
Buxton Museum & Art Gallery has an impressive collection of urns, eggs, bowls, candlesticks and obelisks as well as large pieces of unworked stone as examples of the various types of Blue John. It is also the home of the famous Blue John Window. The window is a mosaic of interlocking pieces of different colours of Blue John which is lit from behind. The result is a stunning display which perfectly shows off the delicate and intricate mineral formations which make up the individual pieces.
Buxton Museum & Art Gallery
Tel: 01298 24658
Places to See Natural Blue John
There are four show caves in Castleton, two of which, listed below, feature visible seams of Blue John:
Blue John Cavern
Blue John cavern, its entrance dramatically overshadowed by Mam Tor, is world famous as home to eight of the fourteen varieties of Blue John. Traditional methods of turning Blue John are still used in their workshop, and old mining equipment can be seen in the cavern itself, along with a natural seam of Blue John that the cavern promises will never be mined. Mining continues here during the winter months, although the mined areas are away from the tourist areas. There is also a gift shop where Blue John jewellery and other items, including refreshments, may be bought.
Blue John Cavern
Tel: 01433 620638
Treak Cliff Cavern
Treak Cliff Cavern offers a journey through a subterranean landscape of stalagmites and stalactites, the most famous stalactite being The Stork. You will see Blue John in the cavern walls around you as you travel through the Witches cave, Aladdin's cave, Fairyland and the Dream cave. Treak Cliff Cavern have various events throughout the year along with the opportunity to polish your own piece of Blue John and educational packs for schools that cross all key stages.
Treak Cliff Cavern
Tel: 01433 620571
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